Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Could It Be Wrong for Partners to Demand Fidelity?

Remaining faithful can be considered a short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.

Key points

  • Fidelty involves a sacrifice that limits happiness, and therefore merits scrutiny.
  • Forsaking all others is a meaningful sacrifice that shows partners' dedication to each other.
  • Partners should not compromise their deeply held values, whether for fidelity or open relationships.
Alex Green/Pexels
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

One of the most frequent promises that committed partners make to each other is to be romantically and sexually faithful. The fact that this is the “default setting” in relationships is shown by having many terms, such as “open relationship,” for when this expectation is modified or rejected altogether.

At the same time, many people who do make such a promise eventually break it, entering into emotional or physical liaisons outside their committed relationship. Aside from the ethics of infidelity, this shows that staying faithful involves a significant sacrifice for many partners, giving up some amount of happiness or satisfaction they receive from being with other people.

If affairs have the potential to make partners happy, is it wrong of us to ask them to give them up? After all, if we want our partners to be happy, and seeing other people would make them happy, why should we deny them that? We wouldn’t ask our partners to give up beloved hobbies or longtime friends; why do we ask them to “forsake all others” they might become romantically or sexually involved with? Simply put, are we asking too much when we ask for fidelity?

Fidelity Is Important to Us (for Whatever Reason)

There are several issues here, and the first is the importance of fidelity to those who value it. Why do many of us have such a strong desire to be our partner’s “one and only”? In terms of biology, we can attribute this to the exclusive dedication of resources to raising offspring. But the feeling seems to go deeper than this, representing an ideal for many people in relationships or seeking them, even after reflecting on any possible evolutionary origins for it. Whatever the cause, or whether we think of it as rational or not, fidelity has a strong effect on the satisfaction many people derive from their relationships, and needs to be treated as an important value held by such people (which is, to say, many people).

Fidelity Means More Because It Involves a Sacrifice

Promising to be faithful to a partner who values it does not only make them happy, but it’s also a powerful signal of your devotion. Furthermore, the fact that fidelity involves a sacrifice is exactly what makes it such a meaningful promise. Think of this: Would it mean anything to promise to give up smoking if you never smoked, or to give up raucous nights out with your friends if you never enjoyed them anyway?

This also puts attraction to other people in a different context. If your partner knows you are tempted by someone else but sees that you remain faithful nonetheless, this only highlights your devotion to them. It shows them that, even though carrying on occasional affairs would bring you happiness, being with them exclusively makes you even happier—or that the happiness you get from a long-term relationship with them is deeper and more profound than the type you get from transitory, short-lived liaisons.

The sacrifice of the happiness from being with other people isn’t a good thing in and of itself, but it is a trade-off that partners make for each other—as well as for their own deeper sense of well-being, similar to any other short-term sacrifice made for long-term benefit.

What if Fidelity Is Too Much of a Sacrifice?

It may be the case that seeing other people is as important to one partner as fidelity is to the other. (We must be careful not to assume one value is more “worthy,” lest we beg the question in favor of fidelity.) In such a case, these partners may not be a good match: As much as they care for each other and want to be together, there is a difference of opinion, specifically regarding the relationship itself, that may be irreconcilable.

Although we all have to make small sacrifices for our partners, we should never compromise on things that are deeply important to us or are an integral part of who we are, and this includes the way we desire affection and intimacy. (See this post for more on compromise in relationships.)

Asking for Fidelity Is OK, Provided Both Partners Agree to It

In the end, we can say that fidelity is a meaningful sacrifice that partners make for each other that shows that the deeper happiness they get from the relationship is more important to them than the fleeting pleasures of short-term affairs.

However, it is essential that both partners voluntarily agree to this. If one partner goes along with it reluctantly, just to placate the other or in response to pressure for them or others, it will inevitably lead to resentment and very likely infidelity that will only hurt the partner who valued it. By the same token, a partner who values fidelity should never be forced to enter an open relationship to make the partner who wants one happy. No one should be coerced or manipulated into making a sacrifice regarding their core values, no matter what anybody else might think of them—especially when there are other options available, albeit with other people.

Facebook image: Kmpzzz/Shutterstock

More from Mark D. White Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today